Conformity and Individuality in Americanah

In Adichie’s novel Americanah, Ifemelu is the captivating young protagonist who sets out from Nigeria to discover herself in America, a land of freedom and opportunity. She leaves home unformed, hoping to find herself, but over the course of her time in this new country, she only feels more lost. Following the end of her relationship with Curt, her first serious boyfriend in the States, Ifemelustruggles to recall who she was prior to meeting him. She cannot remember “what she had enjoyed, disliked, wanted,” and realizes how completely “she was blinded by the brightness of Curt”.[1]Ifemelu’s intercultural relationships in America illustrate the conflict between the pressures of assimilation and her desire to be her own person.[2]She seeks her own definition through the clearly defined roles given to her by Curt and Blaine the two men she dates seriously in America. Through Ifemelu’s romantic involvements, Adichie proves how easy it is to slip into different roles in the effort to find one’s true self, especially in an unfamiliar world. Assimilation gives Ifemelu a temporary sense of place and power, but ultimately it cannot provide permanent satisfaction.[3]

In this paper, I will examine the distinct stages of immersion, discontent, and inevitable termination in Ifemelu’s relationships with Curt and Blaine. Initially, Ifemelu is relieved to use the concrete rules and routines of her role as the girlfriend to temporarily define herself. Eventually, she is unable to continue in a relationship that requires she keep up a constant pretense. In both relationships, she leaves feeling certain that she is looking for something else. The men she dates in America are especially significant because Curt and Blaine each represent established cultures within America offer Ifemelu a place to belong, but also demand that she sacrifice parts of who she was before. In this way, her individual relationships with these men exemplify the struggle of voluntary assimilators to find their place in established societies while also staying true to themselves.

Adichie uses Ifemleu’s experience immersion into Curt’s world to illustrate that it is impossible to reconcile the desire to confirm with personal identity. Curt is the first boyfriend Ifemelu has in America. A self-proclaimed “rich guy from the Potomac,”[4]Curt wears his status openly and unabashedly. He is instantly recognizable as a particular “kind of white,” with “untamed golden hair and handsome face, the athlete’s body, the sunny charm, and the smell, around him, of money”.[5]His flatteries and open adoration alleviate her insecurity. She “began to like him because he liked her,” indicating that she is less attracted to his actual person than to the security a relationship with him promises to give her.[6]Even their relationship status relies on his assuredness: “perhaps they were indeed dating after one kiss since he was so sure that they were”.[7]Curt is open and predictable, making it easy for Ifemelu to imagine herself as his partner because the role is already defined. He owns his place in his world with the ease of someone who has never had that place questioned;[8]this is clearly unlike Ifemelu, who is still struggles to understand and find her place in American society. 

At the onset of their relationship, she immerses herself in his world. He brings with him a previously unknown and inaccessible lifestyle. With him, she becomes “…a woman free of knots and cares, a woman running in the rain with the taste of sun-warmed strawberries in her mouth”.[9]The relationship gives her a certain self-image, complete with activities and hobbies. “‘A drink’ became a part of the architecture of her life, mojitos and martinis, dry whites and fruity reds. She went hiking with him, kayaking, camping near his family’s vacation home, all things she would never have imagined herself doing before”.[10]Curt defines their relationship, and Ifemelu is simply an outsider assimilating into his world. This is not unappealing to her because she longs to feel as though she belongs somewhere, and still hopes that by performing a role in someone else’s world, she will find something that feels right for her. While her understanding of herself is yet incomplete, her perception of Curt is comprehensive, and her role of Curt’s Girlfriend is easily knowable. Her insecurity makes her susceptible to allowing someone else to mold her persona. However, although this is initially reassuring, she cannot be permanently satisfied with what feels like a performance. It is impossible for her to reconcile her image with her identity.

While Curt is a doting boyfriend, there remains an unbridgeable gap between him and Ifemelu. She cannot help but notice that he does things “in a way that only an American of his kind could”.[11]Further, it is taken as a fact that Ifemelu is the one who should make concessions to cross that gap.[12]As an outsider coming into contact with Curt’s culture, Ifemelu is expected to overcome her undesirable otherness by adopting the practices and affectations of the established group. This expectation is evident in her interactions with Curt’s friends, who are “like him, sunny and wealthy people who existed on the glimmering surface of things… They expected certain things of her, and forgave certain things from her, because she was foreign.”[13]Her “foreignness” is seen that something that hinders her, preventing Curt’s friends from seeing her as an equal. 

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